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The IRA tried to kill me on three separate occasions. Nothing personal, just that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time when the Provos’ deadly “mainland campaign” against Brits took the form of planting IEDs, improvised homemade bombs, in central London where I lived. In Picadilly, shrapnel from a device inside a letter box grazed my head; the same month, a McDonald’s I walked past on Oxford Street blew up; and still later, outside a Sloane Square pub, glass shattered at my feet after an explosion. Such an intense level of exposure and vulnerability left me shaken.
The Provos had resorted to the “poor man’s artillery” of IEDs because they were outnumbered and outgunned by the British army and Ulster constabulary. How else were they to achieve their political agenda other than by indiscriminately killing British civilians?
I read Afghanistan casualty lists almost every night, and my rough calculation seems to agree with the Pentagon’s: that IEDs – jerry-built, cleverly-disguised roadside bombs – cost way more American (and Afghan) lives than snipers, mortars or RPGs. According to NATO and the Department of Defense, despite General Petraeus’s soothing assertion that the incidents are “flattening out”, since 2007, the number of Taliban IEDs has increased nearly 400 per cent, and IED kills by that same 400 per cent and IED-crippled troops by 700 per cent. At least 30 per cent of combat soldiers, in Iraq and Afghanistan, are at risk of potentially disabling neurological disorders from IED blast waves – without suffering a scratch.
But percentages don’t bleed. For yourself, look up the casualty lists from your own state or district, add up the IED “kinetic events”, and study, really look at, the names and photographs of the dead soldiers who suddenly seem part of our own families. The harsh lesson is that no foreign invading army like ours can beat a “backward” native people who, for a few dollars and in five minutes, can build a dish pan, copper wire, a left-over 155mm Soviet shell and a bit of Semtex or C-4 and fertilizer into a killer IED hidden in potholes, among garbage and even inside animals.
It’s terrifyingly easy for a soldier to get blasted apart by these devices. You don’t even have to step on a pressure plate any more, just walk by an innocent-looking rock and – bang! – you’re shredded by remote control. Increasingly, these things are set off by text messages from afar. Jihadists may be typecast as primitive “ragheads” on TV news, but they have learned to be thoughtful and high-tech assassins.
In his latest Oval Office speech, President Obama, in paying anodyne tribute to the troops, glancingly referred to “the signature wounds of today’s wars, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury (TBI)”. Let’s pause a moment on TBI, where a visible wound may not show but the person’s brain has been shaken as in a Mixmaster by the faster-than-speed-of-sound blast of an IED explosion. No helmet or body armor yet invented can protect from its peculiar one-two punch that causes, on the battlefield or much later, microscopic cellular and metabolic damage, leading to blindness, deafness, memory loss, premature ageing and destruction of neurons that cannot be replaced.
As the pediatric surgeon and Vietnam veteran Ronald Glasser says, “the symbol (of the new IED-dominated battles) is not the cemetery but the orthopedic ward” and neurological unit. Strangely, army commanders are extremely reluctant to award Purple Hearts for IED wounds, which can be hard for combat medics to diagnose in the heat of battle. Even skilled field-hospital emergency doctors may miss the insidious danger signs. If a soldier looks unscratched, just a little dazed, military culture demands he or she be shipped back to fight again. Troopers themselves may be reluctant to report symptoms, fearing career damage or being seen as a goof-off.
Once back home, soldiers very often have to struggle for treatment. Congress is eager to vote the Pentagon $20bn for JIEDDO, the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Organization – who thinks up these names? – whose own boss, general Michael Oates, confesses is only marginally useful. But when it comes to money for medical research into the little-known effects of TBI, the government drags its feet.
At the moment, despite evidence that 30 per cent of our battlefield casualties are bomb-concussion cases, the military and the Veterans Administration make it as hard as possible to get help. President Obama boasts that “because of our drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to go on the offence” in a deteriorating Afghanistan, which translates into more visible and invisible wounded. Soldiers lose their lives, arms, legs, eyes, even faces. We can see those terrible wounds. But concussed, TBI-suffering soldiers also lose parts of their minds sometimes without even knowing it. Until they get home and can’t remember their daughter’s name.